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Dispatches from a changing profession: contemporary clergywomen's stories

A new study on clergywomen by the Flourishing in Ministry research team highlights change in an increasingly diverse profession.

Elaine is in her late forties, and the first woman to lead her small suburban congregation. An exile from conservative Christianity, she spent many years exploring different religious traditions before joining a mainline denomination. She is a published scholar with a successful prior career in education and is just starting her first call as a solo pastor. Sophie is in her early thirties and has recently moved to the West coast with her wife to start working as an associate pastor in a large and affluent suburban parish. Her previous career was in marketing and communication, and she is the first LGBT leader of her congregation. Danyelle is in her early fifties. A spiritually curious child, she grew up in a tradition that barred women from ordained ministry. The double burden of gender stereotyping and racial discrimination weighed heavily on her journey, and she experienced poverty and abuse. As an emergent pastor in a mainline denomination, she is now building a new identity as a gifted leader and a recognized preacher. Sarah is in her early sixties, and before becoming a minister, she had a successful career in healthcare management. As a new clergywoman, she struggles to reconcile her past identity as an experienced professional and her current role as a clergy "recruit." In her view, religious organizations treat older women as a disposable workforce, and she wonders if changing careers was a mistake.

Peter is in his mid-thirties. He and his husband have just relocated to a rural region in the Midwest, where Peter has been appointed as a solo pastor of a small mainline congregation. A professional with a past career in higher education administration, Peter is the first LGBT pastor of his church. Despite some resistance from conservative members, his appointment has transformed his church's image in the community. Many young families have joined it, and the church is experiencing a rebirth that fills Peter with enthusiasm. Andrew is also in his mid-thirties. Together with his wife and his two young children, he has recently moved to the Midwest, where he has accepted a solo pastor appointment in a small rural congregation. Andrew comes from a lineage of pastors. His family's experiences caused him to grow up thinking that being a father and a minister were mutually exclusive commitments. Rather than pursuing a calling to ministry, he started a stimulating and financially rewarding career in public policy. Becoming a pastor meant overcoming his fears for his family, abandoning a rewarding job, and risking his financial security. Now, as a newly ordained clergy, Andrew sometimes wonders if he made the right choice. He loves ministry, but he believes that his current salary does not adequately reflect his educational level and professional achievements. His progressive theology and vision for his church do not align with his aging membership culture. His first months have been incredibly hard, and from time to time, he thinks about his past and possibly resuming his past career.

Elaine, Sophie, Sarah, Peter, and Andrew are white. Danyelle is black. Sophie and Peter identify as LGBT, while Elaine, Danyelle, Sarah, and Andrew are heterosexual. Peter and his husband are adopting a newborn; Sophie and her wife are trying to have a baby. Elaine is married and experienced the pain of infertility and miscarriages, which made her realize the need for the church to break its silence on these difficult experiences; Danyelle endured a painful divorce. Sarah never married and has quickly learned that her status as a single person exposes her to unreasonable expectations from her church members. Due to Andrew's decision to become a pastor, his young wife had to give up her financial security and life as a full-time housewife and mother. She now works for a salary that goes in large part to pay for childcare. She is well aware of Andrew's second-guessing his career choice but remains supportive of his calling.

These life sketches illustrate the diversity of profiles and personal trajectories of today's emergent clergy. Their age, gender, sexual orientation, religious biographies, and professional journeys vividly exemplify the dramatic shifts currently reshaping the clergy profession.

In his analysis of contemporary trends in American religion, sociologist Mark Chaves chronicles the progressive disappearance of a clergy profile that traditionally fostered the pipeline of religious organizations: young male college graduates.[i] Particularly concerning, in Chaves' view, is the steady decline of male prospective seminary students' GRE scores[ii] and the disappearance of Phi Beta Kappa members and Rhodes scholars among recent Master of Divinity cohorts. These admittedly imperfect indicators would suggest "a declining interest in a religious career among the most intellectually talented."[iii] Chaves' acknowledges that drawing fewer students from an academic elite does not necessarily imply an average decline in the quality of church leadership. Yet, his analysis mostly focuses on the negative impact of this specific demographic shift. The emergence of a new pipeline of relatively older and female candidates is framed as part of a narrative of declining interest in the clergy profession. And while Chaves insists that leadership quality cannot be measured based on a demographic shift, virtually nothing is said about who the new leaders are and how they may be shaping congregational ministry.

The influx of women into the ordained ministry has marked one of the most significant developments in contemporary American Protestantism. This inflow has been among the factors that have profoundly transformed the demographic profile of the clergy profession, as women are over-represented among those who join the clergy later in life, often as a second career. Today approximately thirty percent of churches within the most liberal mainline Protestant denominations are led by women, as they progressively replace older and overwhelmingly male cohorts.[iv]

Our research takes place against this backdrop of change. Building on the life narratives of recently ordained clergy like Elaine, Sophie, Danyelle, Sarah, Peter, and Andrew, the study illuminates the diversification of contemporary clergy's profiles. The movement towards plurality and diversity these stories exemplify highlights the increasing difficulty of speaking about clergy "in general," as if it represented a homogeneous category.[v]

This research focuses on the experiences of a specific group – women who have recently joined the ordained ministry. The diversity of their trajectories exemplifies the richness of experiences contemporary clergy bring to the profession. It also raises essential questions on the processes through which new clergy may integrate past and present values and experiences and shape a new professional identity.

Pastoral identity formation is a central yet underdeveloped research area in Christian scholarship.[vi] This study focuses on a specific stage of clergy's identity formation process when newly ordained ministers undertake their first full-time call. According to our findings, this is a particularly sensitive transition. At this crossroad, a clergy's previously formed ideas about herself and the role meet her congregation's social and cultural context. David Wood, an expert in the area of ministry transitions, confirms this insight. Reflecting on the well-structured processes guiding medical students' transition into their role as new doctors, Wood argues that there is no such ordered and established pathway into the clergy profession. As a result, the transition from the halls of theological education to a congregation's grounds is often experienced as disorienting and haphazard.[vii] In recent years, theological educators and church leaders have become increasingly aware of the importance of this transition for clergy flourishing. Our findings indicate that for new clergywomen, this passage's challenges are often compounded by their being perceived as "space invaders," bodies out of place, and in implicit contradiction with their new status.[viii] Despite women's significant presence among new cohorts of ordained clergy, research on how new clergywomen navigate their transition into "becoming" a minister is still relatively scarce.

Our research draws from practical theology and the emerging field of professional identity formation studies to explore the process through which new clergy shape their identity. Individuals enter their new profession with their own identities--which include values and attributes such as gender, race, personal characteristics, religion, and culture. As new clergy deal with social norms and cultural expectations about their role, they further develop their personal and professional identities.[ix] Given the diversity of contemporary clergy's profiles, our focus on clergywomen's trajectories intentionally tries to avoid adopting a "universal" and monolithic gender perspective. Factors such as race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, ability, marital status, social class, education, religious background, and contextual location dynamically shape clergywomen's professional identity and have a profound impact on their relationship with church institutions. Consequently, this study avoids a single-axis approach. Instead, it adopts an intersectional, "both/and" analytical lens, allowing complexity and contradiction to emerge in our participants' experiences.[x]

Two decades ago, a landmark study concluded its analysis of women’s ordination legacy by affirming the importance of considering clergywomen not merely as survivors. Women were reshaping a profession still dominated by male perspectives – they were, in fact, "reinventing ministry for the future."[xi]

Our study aims at complicating Chaves' implied narrative of decline by providing a richer understanding of how a specific group, emergent clergywomen, is fashioning a future in which the structural and cultural inheritance of male-oriented narratives about the role is still very much at work. By following participants' rich life narratives, we hope to illuminate their experiences and provide useful insights that may guide those who aspire to follow in their footsteps, as well as theological educators and church leaders.

Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD

[i] Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends - Second Edition, 2nd Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 75-79. [ii] According to Chaves, this trend does not apply to women, as female prospective seminary students outperform their male counterparts on the GRE. These data appear to challenge that new clergy may be less talented than they used to be. See Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends - Second Edition, 2nd Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 81. [iii] Chaves, American Religion, 78. [iv] Chaves, American Religion, 81. [v] Rebecca S. Chopp, Saving Work: Feminist Practices of Theological Education, 1st ed.. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995). [vi] Samuel Park and Christie Cozad Neuger, Pastoral Identity as Social Construction: Pastoral Identity in Postmodern, Intercultural, and Multifaith Contexts (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2017). [vii] David J. Wood, “Transition into Ministry: Reconceiving the Boundaries between Seminaries and Congregations,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, ed. Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra, First Edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 290-305. [viii] Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, 1st Edition (Oxford : New York: Berg Publishers, 2004). [ix] Deirdre Bennett et al., “Possibility and Agency in Figured Worlds: Becoming a ‘Good Doctor,’” Medical Education 51, no. 3 (2017): 248–257; Elspeth Hill et al., “‘You Become a Man in a Man’s World’: Is There Discursive Space for Women in Surgery?,” Medical Education 49, no. 12 (2015): 1207–1218; S. Sharpless et al., “The Becoming: Students’ Reflections on the Process of Professional Identity Formation in Medical Education,” Academic Medicine 90, no. 6 (2015): 713–717; Tomoko Matsui et al., “Professional Identity Formation of Female Doctors in Japan - Gap between the Married and Unmarried,” BMC Medical Education 19, no. 1 (2019): 55; Sally Warmington and Geoffrey McColl, “Medical Student Stories of Participation in Patient Care-Related Activities: The Construction of Relational Identity,” Advances in Health Sciences Education 22, no. 1 (2017): 147–163. [x] Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw, Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide (Fortress Press, 2018), xiii. [xi] Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia Mei Yin Chang, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, 1st edition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 133.


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